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The Last of the Iron Lungs

The polio epidemic of the 1950s devastated Americans. Thousands died, many more were paralyzed, and everyone was terrified until a vaccine became available in 1955. Those stricken by polio also had to deal with possibility of post polio syndrome, in which paralysis develops, resurges, or worsens years later. The paralysis can remove a patient's ability to breathe, which is why many sufferers lived in iron lungs, often temporarily but sometimes for the rest of their  lives. Today, very few people who depend on iron lungs are left. Jennings Brown of Gizmodo found three of them, possibly the last three people in iron lungs. Martha Lillard uses a portable positive pressure device to breathe during the day, but sleeps in an iron lung because the negative pressure it provides is less damaging to her lungs. She let Brown try it out.   

Being in an iron lung was the most relief and discomfort I have ever felt at the same time. I slowly got used to the mechanical rhythm and began feeling a little relaxed. I tried closing my mouth, and air still rushed in through my lips. I felt like a vacuum cleaner.

As I climbed out, Lillard warned me to be careful and not break any of the switches or pulleys. If I damaged anything, and she wasn’t able to get someone to repair it within a few hours, she might not have made it through the night. A few weeks earlier, the collar-opener broke and she was trapped inside. Fortunately, her housekeeper was there to help her force it open, and a friend who does custom metal fabrication for motorcycles, planes, and other machines, Tony Baustert, came a few hours later to repair it.

Paul Alexander has become increasingly paralyzed from the polio he contracted over 60 years ago, and spends almost all his time inside his iron lung. He recently got a newly refurbished model.

Alexander had been in the refurbished model for about a couple months when I first met with him in September. To him, it was like a new skin. “Once you live in an iron lung forever, it seems like, it becomes such a part of your mentality. Like if somebody touches the iron lung—touches it—I can feel that. I can feel the vibration go through the iron lung,” he said. “If there’s a slight bit of a vibration that occurs as the result of the mechanics—worn out the fan belt or it needs grease or anything like that—it tends to change the breath slightly. Yep, the iron lung’s a part of me, I’m afraid.”

Mona Randolph also relies on an iron lung. What all three have in common, besides polio, is the difficulty of getting parts and service for their iron lungs, which few modern technicians are familiar with. The last such devices were built 50 years ago, but their operation means the difference between life and death for those who depend on them. Read about the lives and struggles of the last remaining iron lung users at Gizmodo. -via TYWKIWDBI

(Image credit: Jennings Brown for Gizmodo)

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